|Scene from From the House of the Dead, Patrice Chéreau 2007|
Mark Wigglesworth's conducting certainly played up the violence, and rightly so, since there's nothing cute about a society that needs gulags to keep people under control. Luckily for me, I learned this opera audio-only, from the Vaclav Neumann recording, rather than from Mackerras, so I think of it in terms of the music first. The first time I experienced the opera live was when Perre Boulez conducted the production directed by Patrice Chéreau : a historic event in many ways, impossible to forget. Boulez conducted with an unnerving intensity: red hot holds nothing back but ice-cold suggests invisible horrors too dangerous to contemplate. The tragedy of human suffering, so fundamental to Janáček's vision, grows ever more powerful in contrast. From the House of the Dead is actually more humane than some assume. Janáček cared about people. As Chéreau pointed out, what really pervades the opera for him is its implicit humanity. Under the harshness and violence flows surprisingly strongly a sense of “compassion”, as he puts it, which runs like a hidden stream throughout the opera, surfacing at critical junctures. It is also totally non-judgemental. Neither murderers nor guards are held to account, they simply exist. Thus the famous phrase near the end, “he too was born of a mother”.
At a discussion session after the performance I heard in Amsterdam in 2007, someone in the audience (beware that type) asked Chéreau why he didn't costume the prisoners in orange, to protest Guantanamo Bay. Quick as a flash, Boulez said: "We are in Holland. In Holland, Orange is the Royal House". In a nutshell, the art of visual literacy : images mean different things. Chéreau's prisoners could have been Everyman in their drab garb, in a set dystopian in its abstraction. The prisoners engaged in pointless, repetitive work (building a ship in landlocked Siberia) but it doesn't overwhelm the stage. Instead there's an explosion when the bags of waste paper the men have been collecting blow up and scatter all over the stage: Substance now, waste no longer. This explosion coincided with a dramatic climax in the music. In a single striking image, the message is that men who have been thrown away by society are not detritus, whether they can fight back or not.
"Coherence", said Chéreau that eveing so long ago, "between ideas, music and drama, is the basis of interpretation". Stagecraft is not decoration : it is Gesamtkunstwerk, the drawing-together of different elements into a whole. Audiences often go for shallow productions because they are bright and jokey, but that isn't necessarily "what the composer intended". Warlikowski's production has a bit of everything. His thing for vivid jewel colours against black and white usually works extremely well, though less so in this case. Maybe ROH chose him to please the punters, so they can tell the difference between prisoners, guards and visitors (which, arguably, should be minimal, just as there often isn't much difference in real life). Huge structures dominate, which is a good thing as they suggest overwhelming forces intimidating small figures. It's a rather well-organized prison, probably not too remote, since there are a lot of outsiders here, including blow-up dolls. Presumably these suggest how society dehumanizes women, treating them as objects, which is perfectly valid and connects to the central idea that the men in this prison are "in the house of the dead". ROH wouldn't have dared show real women getting kicked about, and in any case no-one "should" need the details. London punters go berserk over two seconds of tit, glimpsed for a moment in an entirely appropriate context, so they can't be expected to understand that their own sensibilities are not more important than being moved by the suffering of others. The Prostitute (Alison Cook) as symbol, in bright-green hot pants cavorting chastely with the boys. (Or not so chastely, given that she looks 14.) Nothing wrong with that image per se since prostitutes are the "prisoners" of a messed-up world. Chéreau had the Eagle shot, but for a moment we glimpsed its glory. Maybe I missed Warlikowski's Eagle, but perhaps The Prostitute serves a similar function: she gets out alive.
Big names for the parts where older voices work well like Willard W White as Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov, Graham Clark as Antonic the Elderly Prisoner. Stefan Margita sang Luka Kuzmič, as he did in the 2007 run as did Peter Hoare, singing Šapkin. Pascal Charbonneau sang an impressive Aljeja. Ladislav Elgr sang Skuratov and Johan Reuter sang Šiškov. Alexander Vassiliev sang The Governor. As always, House regulars like Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, Grant Doyle and the always-superb Royal Opera House Chorus were good and reliable. Nice dancers, too, writhing and twisting their (very attractive) bodies, expressing what is suggested in the music but which ROH probably needs to censor for fear of punter wrath. This production is not the best, but by no means is it the worst. But there is not a lot you can do with London audiences who can't be bothered to find out about a composer or an opera beforehand and insist on kitsch and circus. Inevitably that means compromise, which is not good for art.